What the hell are flange-fit composite bodies, and why do they matter?

Here’s a quick Q&A — with myself — to help explain Wednesday’s news that NASCAR will move toward flange-fit composite bodies in the Xfinity Series:

Uh, what is this?

OK, so you know how all stock car bodies in NASCAR’s national series are made of one steel piece? NASCAR is looking to change that in the Xfinity Series by introducing something called flange-fit composite bodies.

I had to Google this, but a flange is basically an attachment, like a hook. And then composite describes the laminate material the body will be made of.

I don’t really get it. How’s that going to work, exactly?

There are now going to be 13 composite panels that make up an Xfinity Series body, held together by these flanges. Remember those 3D jigsaw puzzles? It’s kinda like that, from what I gather.

That’s crazy!!! Why in the world would NASCAR do that?

Racing is expensive and this is going to save teams some sweet, sweet cash in several different ways. Also, it should promote parity if it works.

OK. How and how?

The cost savings part is legit. Let’s say a car wrecks in practice and the body is pretty much junk, but the chassis is still good. Well instead of pulling out a backup car, now the team can just take the damaged panel off and put a new one on. And if there’s a crash during the race, it will be way less of a time suck to just replace the panels as opposed to hanging a new steel body on the chassis once the team gets back to the shop.

As for parity? Well, everyone is going to be running the same panels and they are supposedly tamper-proof with security features that will prevent teams from manipulating them for aero advantages.

Can they change the panels during the race?

Nope, because the five-minute clock will still be in effect for crash damage and it would take too long to swap out the panels.

Huh. But the teams can’t possibly be on board with this, right?

NASCAR says they are. Officials say the teams have been asking for this and worked with NASCAR and the manufacturers on this project. And apparently NASCAR got some strong buy-in, because officials are expecting all but a few teams to run it at the first available opportunity — even though it’s optional.

When is that? You got this far down in the story and didn’t even say when this is all happening.

Sorry, my bad. It’s Richmond, Dover and Phoenix this fall, and then all races except for superspeedways next season.

Wait, back up a couple questions. Did you say this is optional? If so, why wouldn’t some teams keep running the steel bodies in the future?

As of right now, steel bodies likely offer a competitive advantage over composite bodies because teams can manipulate them right up to the edge of the rules.

But in the near future, that may not be the case. Brett Bodine, NASCAR Senior Director of R&D, hinted there would be competition restrictions on the steel bodies that would make them heavier and take the incentive away to use them next year.

Clearly, NASCAR wants composite bodies to be the wave of the future.

Oh. So they’re coming to Cup then, probably.

Eh, maybe. But NASCAR won’t say that and wouldn’t go there on Wednesday. Officials insist they’re “100 percent focused” on seeing how it works in Xfinity first.

And by the way, NASCAR says fans won’t be able to tell the difference between a steel car and a flange/composite car by just watching from the stands or on TV.

Interesting. Well, it doesn’t sound all bad. Did NASCAR do something right?

We’ll have to wait and see, but at least it seems that way on first glance.

Just Ban Them Already

Jan. 2011

Rule: NASCAR announces drivers must “pick a series” in order to run for a championship.

Quote: “We think it’s worth it in order to promote and create more of a clearer understanding on the difference between Sprint Cup and Nationwide races or Camping World races. The attention and the identity of the developing drivers we think is expedited with this move.” — Mike Helton.

Jan.  2016

Rule: NASCAR announces the 16 Chase drivers from 2015 are ineligible to run the 2016 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in order to put an emphasis on Xfinity and Truck regulars in the new championship race format.

Quote: “Many people like the idea that it’s unique that our best drivers get to compete with our up‑and‑coming drivers. Others, not so much. But we like it in general. It’s part of who we are. …. So we’ve had to modify it a little bit, of course, with changing the formats around. But generally speaking, that’s kind of where we stand.” — Brian France.

Oct. 2016

Rule: NASCAR announces Cup drivers with more than five years of experience can race in 10 Xfinity events and seven Truck events in 2017, but cannot compete in any playoff races or Xfinity Dash 4 Cash races. In addition, drivers who get Cup points (regardless of experience level) cannot compete in the Xfinity or Truck races at Homestead.

Quote: “The updated guidelines will elevate the stature of our future stars, while also providing them the opportunity to compete against the best in professional motorsports. These updated guidelines are the result of a collaborative effort involving the entire industry, and will ultimately better showcase the emerging stars of NASCAR.” — Jim Cassidy.

Today

Rule: NASCAR announces Cup drivers with more than five years of experience can race in seven Xfinity events and five Truck events in 2018, but none of the playoff races, regular season finale or Xfinity Dash 4 Cash races — a limit which also now extends to all Cup drivers regardless of experience level.

Quote: “Fans have made it clear that they want to see the future stars of the sport racing against their peers in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series. These guidelines achieve that and preserve limited opportunities for developing drivers to compete against the best in motorsports.” — Jim Cassidy.

In the future, maybe next year

Rule: Another baby step toward solving the problem instead of actually just banning Cup drivers from running lower-series races altogether.